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3 plausible Maple Leafs rosters that fit under the cap

Mixed in is the injury report and some waivers and LTIR refreshers.

The Toronto Maple Leafs open their training camp Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Preseason has barely begun, and there are choices to be made on the Leafs roster, but there isn’t a lot of flexibility in terms of cap space. The expectation is that Auston Matthews will be fully recovered from surgery in time to start the season; the goaltending is set; the defence top six is a given — barring major injuries, there won’t be LTIR on opening day.

At the moment Alex Steeves, Joe Woll and Ian Scott are all injured to one extent or the other. Because all three are on two-way contracts and did not play in the NHL last year, they can, if they are still injured, start the year on Season Opening Injured Reserve. In their case, they will not count against the cap. SOIR is not the same as LTIR, so there is no pool to be concerned with.

Conservative Roster Number One

Assuming everyone is available and healthy, the most conservative roster, judged almost entirely by contracts — as in, the players paid over the minimum are expecting to make the team — fits under the cap, set again at $81.5 million this season.

Nick Ritchie - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Michael Bunting - John Tavares - William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Ondřej Kaše
Wayne Simmonds - David Kämpf - Jason Spezza
Pierre Engvall

Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Rasmus Sandin - Travis Dermott

Petr Mrázek
Jack Campbell

With this group of 21, the cap space is $80,217. Short of a major trade, there really is no way to get more than 21 players on the roster. Don’t fuss too much about the line assignment of the various wingers, that’s unlikely to stay static. This structure requires the following players to clear waivers:

  • Kurtis Gabriel
  • Joey Anderson
  • Michael Amadio
  • Brett Seney
  • Adam Brooks
  • Alex Biega
  • Carl Dahlström
  • Brennan Menell
  • Teemu Kivihalme
  • Michael Hutchinson

Josh Ho-Sang and Nikita Gusev, should either be signed to an NHL contract, would also require waivers to be assigned to the AHL.

Seven Defenders

The first question to ask about the obvious roster above — and it’s so obvious, it’s the one Cap Friendly has as their projected roster — is what happened to the tradition of playing with an extra defenceman, not a forward. This was Mike Babcock’s preference, but even he was flexible when circumstances warranted. If the Leafs wanted to do that, say for a road-trip when one of their defenders was a bit banged up, they would have to pick a forward and put them through waivers.

This is the point at which Pierre Engvall seems both useful, in that he plays centre or wing, and expendable, in that he’s not adding as much to the game outcomes as almost everyone else. Let’s say the Leafs decide to risk losing him on waivers and cut him for a defender:

Nick Ritchie - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Michael Bunting - John Tavares - William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Ondřej Kaše
Wayne Simmonds - David Kämpf - Jason Spezza

Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Rasmus Sandin - Travis Dermott
Brennan Menell

Goalies unchanged

This provides cap space of $455,217, which will accrue a whole lot faster. This is important this season because the Olympic break created an NHL season 200 days long. Because cap space accrues day-by-day, each day’s amount is lower, and it takes longer to get enough built up for an ill-advised deadline trade.

Cutting Engvall assumes that the Leafs signed Wayne Simmonds for two years at $900,000 because they intend to play him, and they aren’t interested in our analysis on the wisdom of that. An argument can be made that Simmonds’ extra year on his contract makes him defacto waivers exempt because no one would claim him. It’s possible the Leafs were looking to achieve, with his contract, a player who could move between the AHL on paper and the NHL roster as needed, utilizing his 30 days of waiver exemptions carefully after he clears the first time.

If they cut Simmonds, keep Engvall and add Menell, the cap space is now $230,217.

Play the Kidz!

You want to play the prospects, not some guy like Simmonds. I’ve made the roster I come closest to believing in that puts Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren on the team:

Nick Ritchie - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Michael Bunting - John Tavares - William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Ondřej Kaše
Nick Robertson - David Kämpf - Jason Spezza

Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Rasmus Sandin - Timothy Liljegren
Travis Dermott

Goalies unchanged

The cap space on this roster is $445,217. Liljegren carries performance bonuses on his contract up to $400,000. This matters only if the team is operating in LTIR, and he is the player added to use the LTIR pool. In that case, his potential bonuses count against the pool. In a normal situation operating below the cap ceiling, it’s not relevant unless he earns them. Even then, they aren’t a problem until the end of the year, and the very worst that could happen is $400,000 could roll into next year if the Leafs use all their cap space this year. This is not an issue important enough to affect decision making. If he is a better player than the alternatives, I believe the Leafs will play him.

This roster also contains three players who are waivers exempt, which allows for a lot more flexibility than the other two ideas above. If Robertson and Liljegren were really ready, this would be ideal. I think the probability this happens is vanishingly small.

Engvall and Waivers

Two players really stand out as having contracts well in excess of the bargain Jason Spezza offers, while not really adding a lot of value — at least in terms of goals scored. They are Engvall at $1.25 million and David Kämpf at $1.5 million. Unless Kämpf is going to play as the 3C on merit, and make this entire roster construction process more complex than it looks right now, he, like Engvall, is overpaid for his minutes.

Yet the Leafs went out and got Kämpf, outbidding other teams. He’d need to really fizzle in training camp to not make the roster opening night. Engvall, on the other hand, hasn’t been the first choice to play so far. He didn’t play opening night of the playoffs, and he only played 42 regular season games. Simmonds, for all his injuries, played 38.

At the same time, neither player would clear waivers. They are both clearly NHL-capable players, and there’s teams for whom a little bit of an overpay is a good thing this season.

If Engvall’s role in the first roster concept is to sit in the pressbox most nights, then that’s the job Adam Brooks has proved willing to do, and he’s paid a great deal less. If the 13th forward is one who will rotate into the lineup as the various wingers move around the lines until the ultimate configuration is found, then it’s possible to justify the tight cap space on the first roster. Otherwise, make a decision, accept that Joey Anderson, Brooks, Robertson, etc. are there to fill-in and move out Engvall.

I don’t believe Robertson or Liljegren will make the team. And the first roster is fine — or is until the first injury comes along — but it’s really hard to imagine that working for 82 games without the “luck” of having someone expensive on LTIR to provide the flexibility it lacks.

It’s early days yet, and we haven’t even seen Kämpf and Kaše yet, but I’m having trouble imagining all 21 names on that first roster will even be Maple Leafs on October 12.